WE CAN’T KEEP OUR HANDS OFF THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT.

Desire [blah blah blah] pain/elimination possible the confusion of the spirit [blah] healing [blah blah].

Our most recent article on the Voynich Manuscript brought a comment from a reader who has solved the mystery at last.

Here is where Dr. Boli must confess that he sometimes wonders about the direction his own life has taken. To mock the sincerely deluded seems uncharitable at best. As a general rule, Dr. Boli overcomes this objection by observing that, without the sincerely deluded, there would be nothing on earth to mock at all. When, however, one of those deluded individuals has taken the trouble to leave a comment here, Dr. Boli’s doubts bubble to the surface again. Would it not be a sin against hospitality to say anything unkind about a commenter?

Yet crank linguistics has always been one of Dr. Boli’s favorite fields of study, and the commenter linked to his own article in an academic journal, where all the characteristics of crank linguistics are on display under bright spotlights. He has rolled a barrel full of fish into the room and handed Dr. Boli a pistol.

So Dr. Boli has decided not to say anything unkind. Instead, in a spirit of charity, he will address the commenter’s argument in the academic paper directly, and explain why he believes the commenter is wrong. In fact, to put it very bluntly, he believes the commenter is deluded—but sincerely deluded. He will even resort to the term “crank,” but in a technical sense: the crank in Dr. Boli’s terminology is someone who falls so deep into the well of confirmation bias that he can only dig himself deeper. Today you must look to Twitter or Facebook for your daily dose of sarcasm: we’re going to have a serious discussion here, and nothing would make Dr. Boli happier than to have the commenter in question tell him he is wrong and produce the evidence.

Here, then, is a link to the correspondent’s article in Science and Society, a pay-to-publish journal in which authors pay the magazine to publish their papers. (Dr. Boli has always preferred to see the money flow in the other direction, but he recognizes that we do not all live in an ideal world.) The journal is in PDF form:

«Science and Society»

The article by Nikolay Anichkin on the Voynich Manuscript begins on page 103.


First of all, let it be admitted at once that our correspondent really believes he has solved the mystery, and that it is very unlikely anything will convince him otherwise. This is not only simple courtesy, but it is also sound psychology. Our duty, then, is not to change his mind, but to show him what arguments would change our minds.

The paper begins with a summary of current knowledge about the manuscript. “In General, the Voynich manuscript is a collection of plant drawings, pie charts, unknown female rites, and a significant text part.” Dr. Boli would have to be convinced about the pie charts, but the rest is straightforward enough. The author describes the uncertainty about the manuscript fairly well, pointing out that some scholars believe it is “a semantic text written using an unknown language” and others believe it is a hoax.

“Chemical and radiocarbon analyses have shown that the manuscript was written no earlier than 1438.” This is very important. The author has accepted this dating as fact, which gives Dr. Boli the right to insist on it in his own arguments.

Immediately after the summary, the author drops headlong into the crank well from which there is no easy escape. “Analysis of the specialists’ approach to deciphering the Voynich manuscript showed that all of Them had one mistake.” (We preserve the eccentric capitalization of the original.) All other scientists are wrong, and I alone have discovered the secret: this is the membership card in the club of crankdom. We continue: “All of them tried to see the letters of the alphabet of any language, and the European language, in the signs that the Voynich manuscript was written with.” This is not true; it is easily refuted by a look at the Wikipedia article. Before you make an assertion about the current state of knowledge, look at the Wikipedia article: this is a good general rule that prevents much crankiness.

Since, by common admission, the one-letter-per-sign method of interpretation has failed,

Therefore, it is necessary to change the method of approach to decryption. For example, try a variant in which the basis is not to take a single sign, but the entire system of signs as a whole. Now it is necessary to find a system in the variety of characters that the Voynich Manuscript is written with. After analyzing the signs used in the Voynich Manuscript, it was possible to find such a system. Now the question arose of finding a language whose alphabet format would coincide with the format of The Voynich Manuscript’s sign system. The search yielded results. An ancient language was found, the format (or structure) of the alphabet of which coincided with the format (or structure) of signs used in the text of the Voynich Manuscript.

This is where, in an academic paper, you would expect the “ancient language” to be identified. But it is not. Is it Sanskrit? Is it Akkadian? We simply don’t know, because the author refuses to tell us. This is hardly playing fair. Dr. Boli suspects the author is afraid that, if he revealed the language, other scholars would beat him to a successful decipherment of the entire manuscript. Allow Dr. Boli to reassure you, Mr. Anichkin: that probably will not happen.

Let us, however, assume for the moment that the author is correct. An ancient language has been discovered that corresponds perfectly to the characters in the Voynich Manuscript. Why was that ancient language being written after 1438? Certainly some ancient languages, like Latin and Sanskrit, are still being written today. But we must know the language, so that we can gauge the probability that someone was still writing it in the 1400s or so.

But, again, let us assume that the ancient language is the key. Then we have succeeded, haven’t we? No.

But then everything did not go smoothly. The structure of the complex of characters and the alphabet of the proposed language are identical, but the number of letters was slightly more.

Since we have not even been told what “the structure of the complex of characters” is, we cannot evaluate this statement. But it sounds as though the author is about to widen the field of interpretation to give himself a whole lot of wiggle room.

I had to go back to the text. As a result, a numeric mark was found in the text itself. Using this mark as a hint and attaching two letters to a certain number of characters, everything fell into place. In the future, when translating some short words, this assignment of characters to letters was confirmed.

Here again, the author refuses to describe his method, so we cannot evaluate the statement. A good rule of thumb in any scientific investigation is this: unless you describe your method in such a way that we can repeat it, we don’t believe you. You are simply telling us, “Take my word for it.” But we do not take your word for it, because we have already met too many cranks.

According to our author, there are three layers of encryption in the Voynich Manuscript. If the method of decrypting each one were clear and repeatable, this would not cause us any difficulties. Since we do not know any of the methods, we are not inclined to believe that our author has a method.

We might be inclined to believe him, even if he refused to reveal his methods, if he were able to produce a coherent translation that made obvious sense. But here we fall into the kind of crank linguistics made famous in our own United States by the late Barry Fell.

Here is a marker by which you may identify crank linguistics immediately. Does the author produce a “translation” that is nearly random gibberish, and then concoct a smooth translation by freely associating those random ideas with no set method? If so, we have tumbled into the world of crank linguistics. Our own Barry Fell (America produces the best crank linguists) was a master of this sort of “translation,” which can find meaning in any arbitrary assortment of marks.

Here is an example. Above one of the bathing scenes in the manuscript is a line of eleven words (assuming, of course, that spaces indicate a separation of words). Our author claims to have translated five of them—if we number them from left to right, they are numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, and 9.

1: Desire.
5: Pain, elimination.
6: Possible.
7: The confusion of the spirit.
9: Healing.

If these translations are accurate (which we have to take on faith, and the fact that our author’s method fails in more than half the words does not give us confidence), we have a line that reads “Desire [blah blah blah] pain/elimination possible the confusion of the spirit [blah] healing [blah blah].

Now our author circles the consecutive words 5, 6, 7, leaving out the other two translated words, giving us a phrase “pain/elimination possible the confusion of the spirit.” Above it he produces his smooth translation: “It is possible to eliminate the mental disorder.”

Dr. Boli could immediately think of other interpretations of that string of words. “Pain in elimination may cause confusion,” for example. It is a known fact that urinary-tract infections can cause mental confusion, so this would fit remarkably well with the conclusions of modern medical science. But of course Dr. Boli has no reason for assuming that the words are related in that way. We need some understanding of the grammar of the underlying language, but it does not appear that our author has even considered the question of grammar. Instead, true to crank form, he makes wildly imaginative guesses about the relationships between words without even looking for a method of regularizing those relationships. This is not translation: it’s simply a free-association word game that anyone can play.

But this was the second example, in which we succeeded with almost half the words. In his first figure, our author shows us a section of the manuscript with (by Dr. Boli’s count) 83 words and a picture of a blue flower. Our author then proceeds to translate four out of 83 words: “To be saturated,” “Six,” “Hemp Clothing,” “Food.”

It is easy to see that the meaning of the translated words corresponds to the drawing [of a blue flower]. So the word, the translation of which corresponds to “hemp, hemp clothing” says that this plant was used to obtain the source material in the manufacture of threads and subsequently material and clothing. In our time, these plants are flax and hemp. The next word translates as “food”. It is known that flax and hemp produce oil that is used in cooking.

First of all, our author would make a poor botanist. If the illustration is meant to be flax, then it is true that the five-petaled blue flowers are flax-like. But the leaves are nothing like the leaves of flax. They are drawn in a very specific shape, and there is no way to interpret that shape as the shape of a flax leaf. And then the idea that flax and hemp are the only plants that produce material for clothing in our time is baffling. What about cotton? What about bamboo?

And how about that “six” in the list of translated words?

In many of the texts in this section, there is a word whose translation means the word “six”. The presence of this word can be explained as follows. At the time of writing the Voynich Manuscript, a different chronology was in effect, according to which the week consisted of nine days. Multiplying the number of days in a week by six, we get: 9 x 6 = 54. That is, six weeks corresponds to 54 days, which in modern terms corresponds to almost two months. And it is known that this is how long it takes for most plants to Mature.

First of all, where was this nine-day week in use after 1483? Possibly, says Google, in Lithuania, and less possibly in Wales. Oh, dear—we may have let the cat out of the bag: we may have figured out that ancient language. Or possibly not. What is our author’s evidence that a nine-day week was in use after 1483 when and where the Voynich Manuscript was written? We strongly suspect that his only evidence is in the equation just quoted.

And how is it “known” that 54 days is how long it takes for most plants to Mature? When spring comes around, look at the backs of the seed packets in your local hardware store. They will give you a wide variety of days to maturity, depending on the crop. For example, flax takes about 90 days to produce usable seeds. Why did we pick flax, of all crops? Oh, no reason. (And if, incidentally, it were known that most plants take 54 days to mature, why would it be necessary to repeat that information so often? We do not generally add If you drop it, it falls down to the entry for every known substance in the encyclopedia. Instead, we note the rare exceptions, like hydrogen or helium.)

Now, would you be surprised to find that the Holy Grail makes an appearance in the manuscript? At this point, probably not.

Modern humanity knows about the existence of the Grail. In the Voynich manuscript, in addition to the Grail, the Font and Cradle of Jesus are indicated. The place where they are located is indicated. Next to their image, there are 4 words that I managed to translate. The meaning of these words: “God of treasures”, “Protect”, “Destroy”, “Hack”. In this case, there can be no two opinions about the meaning of the sentence.

Our author believes that there can be only one interpretation of this string of oddly assorted words, and that it is so obvious that he has no need to tell us what it is. Therefore we do not know what it is. Dr. Boli’s first interpretation produced a prayer for Windows users: “God of treasures, protect us from the hackers who would destroy us.” But other interpretations occurred to him: “The God of treasures attempted to protect them, but their data were destroyed by hackers.” Or perhaps “The God of treasures will protect us by destroying the rented horses of our enemies.” So it is true that there can be no two opinions, because we have just come up with three. Nor would it be reasonable to say that we have exhausted the possibilities.(1)


After all this, what would it take to convince Dr. Boli that the author really has found the key to deciphering the Voynich Manuscript?

First of all, it would take not being coy with information. You have discovered an ancient language that fits the pattern of the manuscript. Tell us what it is. Then explain why this ancient language was in use after 1483. Dr. Boli is going to keep insisting on that date as part of the argument, because you have accepted it as fact. Show us where in the world there were people writing that language on parchment in the 1400s or 1500s. If the “ancient language” is Latin, or Greek, or Church Slavonic, for example, you may have a case.

Next, there must be a method that produces coherent translations. You cannot just take a random string of ideas from your supposed interpretations of individual words and arrange them in subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases to your liking. You must show how the words are related in a consistent grammar that conveys meaning.

Then we must see repeatability. We must be able to take the method that worked on one page and apply it to the text on another to get equally coherent results. If your grammatical rules worked on page 24 but fail on page 25, that is a strong indication that you have not really found the right rules.

You must also justify every assumption that makes your method work. If you have to posit a nine-day week, for example, you must show that there was a nine-day week in use somewhere in the world after 1438, and that it was in use in the same area where your supposed ancient language was still being written. If the only evidence you have that there was a nine-day week in that area is your interpretation of the Voynich Manuscript, then which is more likely to be at fault: all of known history, or your interpretation of the Voynich manuscript? (Even as he asks that question, Dr. Boli knows what a truly dedicated crank’s answer will be.)

This has been quite a long article, and we probably have very few readers left this far down. But it will have been worth the writing if the same correspondent will answer these objections. Almost nothing would delight Dr. Boli more than a discovery of the true key to the Voynich Manuscript. He is still reeling from the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs, which is possibly the greatest epigraphic achievement of the twentieth century. Deciphering the Voynich manuscript would delight him almost as much. He would probably be more delighted by a decipherment of the Harappan script, if it is a script, or an unambiguous discovery that the Peruvian quipus really were a complete system of writing (as el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega tells us they were), but he has had to reach very far for something more delightful than piercing the secrets of the Voynich Manuscript.

So, Mr. Anichkin, if you really do have the key, share it with the world. Even if someone else uses your information to finish the translation, you will be remembered as the Champollion of the Voynich Manuscript, because you found the key that eluded everyone else. Prove it to us! Take your place in history! Dr. Boli is waiting to shower you with the praise you will deserve.

Finally, according to his comment, Mr. Anichkin is looking for collaborators, or even successors. Dr. Boli’s readers should take note. If we combined the imagination of Mr. Anichkin with a somewhat sturdier notion of the scientific method, much might be accomplished.

Footnotes

Comments

  1. RepubAnon says:

    I personally favor the “invented secret language” hypothesis. According to the book “In the Land of Invented Languages” by Arika Okrent, a number of Enlightenment-age European philosophers sought to create languages that could express any concept in the universe with precision. Without a Rosetta Stone equivalent, where a known text is also written in the invented language, there’s little chance of successful translation.

    This is, of course, only a hypothesis – but the lack of a deciphered version of the Voynich Manuscript could be considered as supporting evidence.

    Here’s an interesting article on invented languages:

    Lingua Ignota
    A “Lingua Ignota” (Latin for “unknown language”) was described by the 12th century abbess of Rupertsberg, Hildegard of Bingen. A recognized saint of the Roman Catholic Church, she apparently used it for mystical purposes. To write it, she used an alphabet of 23 letters, the “litterae ignotae”.

    She partially described the language in a work titled “Lingua Ignota per simplicem hominem Hildegardem prolata”, which survived in two manuscripts, both dating to ca. 1200, the Wiesbaden Codex and a Berlin MS. The text is a glossary of 1011 words in Lingua Ignota, with glosses mostly in Latin, sometimes in German; the words appear to be “a priori” coinages, mostly nouns with a few adjectives. Grammatically it appears to be a partial relexification of Latin, that is, a language formed by substituting new vocabulary into an existing grammar.

    It is unknown what the precise purpose of Lingua Ignota was; nor do we know who besides its creator were familiar with it. In the 19th century some believed that Hildegard intended her language to be an ideal, universal language. However, nowadays it is generally assumed that Lingua Ignota was devised as a secret language; like Hildegard’s “unheard music”, it would have come to her by divine inspiration. Inasmuch as the language was constructed by Hildegard, it may be considered one of the earliest known constructed languages.

    In a letter to Hildegard, her friend and provost Wolmarus, fearing that Hildegard would soon die, asks “ubi tunc vox inauditae melodiae? et vox inauditae linguae?” (Descemet, p. 346; “where, then, the voice of the unheard melody? And the voice of the unheard language?”), suggesting that the existence of Hildegard’s language was known, but there were no initiates that would have preserved its knowledge after her death.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      The hypothesis of a secret constructed language would explain why no form of cipher has been discovered. Thus the only hope of translating the language would be to make a discovery like Champollion’s—that is, to find certain repeated words that can be associated with a known meaning, the way Champollion discovered that the cartouches in the Rosetta Stone stood for known names.

      It should be possible to do, because there are pictures; thus we should be able to find some word that clearly corresponds to known elements in the pictures.

      But here we run into the other and perhaps even stranger difficulty with the Voynich Manuscript, which is that the pictures are as mysterious as the text. They are plainly pictures of something—plants, women bathing, and so on—but no one has succeeded in identifying what they are pictures of. Pictures of plants make up the bulk of the illustrations in the manuscript, but no one has convincingly demonstrated that they are all pictures of plants that exist in the real world. This is very strange. In European cave paintings, we can identify the species of animals represented. In Chinese or Aztec illustrations, no matter how stylized, we can identify the species of plants used as decorations. The artist who illuminated the Voynich Manuscript seems to have given us pictures of very specific plants that do not exist. The properties of the plants are shown in elaborate detail: the book would make an excellent field guide to these nonexistent plants. We could say that the pictures are full of detail, but completely lacking in meaning, in the sense that they correspond to nothing in the real world. They are like creations by Dr. Seuss; you will never meet a Collapsible Frink in real life, but you would know it instantly if you did.

      This observation leads Dr. Boli to suspect that the writing is similar. It is also full of detail, in the sense that the scribe has used a limited character set to form things that look like words. But are they any more real words than the plants are real plants? If the writing explains the pictures, what does it say about them? What could it say? “Here is another herb that does not exist. This one does not exist in the high mountain regions of a country that does not exist either. If this herb did exist, its roots, mashed and applied as a poultice, could be used to cure hives, but (alas) it does not exist.”

      In favor of the constructed-language hypothesis, however, we might note that the characters are formed fluently. The writing is the work of a scribe who had a lot of practice making these signs before he applied them to this parchment. Of course, if you were to create an expensive manuscript as a hoax, you would be sure to do exactly that: to run through many practice sheets before applying your pen to parchment for the first time.

      As an observer of the thinking of Renaissance scholars, Dr. Boli has a suggestion for following through on the constructed-language hypothesis. Assuming for the moment that the manuscript was produced in Europe, the grammar of this language would be very rigid and very logical, with none of the irregular adaptations to pronunciation that mar our vernacular languages. It would resemble the grammar of Greek or Latin, or just possibly Hebrew, because those would be the languages a Renaissance scholar with too much time on his hands would consider the closest to the ideal language. We should look, therefore, for markers of declension and conjugation; and if we do not find them, we should suspect that we are not after all dealing with a constructed language.

  2. Richard A says:

    You could, on the other hand, charitably assume that Mr. Anichkin is a firmly rational soul. Then such a one must have a great appreciation of the laws of cause-and-effect. Then such a one who produces such a manifestly ridiculous essay must surely seek ridicule, which it would be uncharitable of you not lavish.

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